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2. THE BRAIN, STRESS & THE NERVOUS SYSTEM

In this section, find out how the brain and the nervous system are affected by your breathing and what this does to your thoughts and emotions.

SECTION 2

We are certain that you will find this section fascinating. Many of us live are living with unease, overwhelm, stress, anxiety, disconnection, overactive minds, constant chatter and limiting thoughts and do not know why, or how to break those cycles. We will briefly explain why this is and how breathing can support ending the constant cycles and help you feel less cluttered and more aware of your thoughts, emotions and behaviours.

01

Autonomic nervous system and stress

Now that we understand the breathing mechanics and chemistry processes, and the purpose of breathing, let's explore how breathing benefits, and impacts, our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing. 

 

The best place to start is with our nervous system because it affects so many areas of human health and well-being, and it is also a main regulator of our stress response system.

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breath fact

Should I breathe through my nose or mouth ?

There is a saying that 'the nose knows! The nose was designed for you to breathe through and has many benefits in doing so. Some of those are

It acts as a filter, humidifies and warms the air you breathe in preparation for it reaching your lungs. The nose produces nitric oxide, which acts as antiviral and antibacterial support against viruses and parasites in the airways and lungs. Breathing through your nose relaxes your nervous system, increases oxygen delivery to cells and improves lung capacity and health.

It is good practice to get into the habit of breathing in and out through your nose.

Our nervous system has a big job and plays a role in every aspect of our health and well-being. It guides everyday activities such as waking up and breathing, and complex processes such as thinking, reading, remembering, and feeling emotions. It scans itself four times every second to complete its job of sending signals, like updates and messages all over our body.

 

As the name suggests, it is automatic and does not need our conscious control, just like breathing. However, like our breathing the need for awareness and conscious fine-tuning is required, as we will see.  

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What is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS)?

Your autonomic nervous system is composed of two parts:

 

  1. The central nervous system, which includes the brain and spinal cord

  2. The peripheral nervous system, which consists of nerves that branch off from the spinal cord and extend to all parts of the body

 

You may not realise it, but you are walking around every day reading thousands of cues in your environment. From millisecond to millisecond our ANS receives a whole host of information from your environment, social cues and experiences and will adjust our system accordingly by either activating or deactivating.

 

This is when our sympathetic or parasympathetic nervous systems kick in. These two built-in systems support us in different ways, both are needed not only for psychological balance but for our survival, however, as you will see, things can get a little muddled at times! Let’s take a look

 

  • The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) – AROUSING/ACTIVATING ‘flight or fight’ - stress response

  • The Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) – CALMING/JOY ‘rest, relax and digest’ (or Freeze mode which we will cover below)

 

Ideally, there should be a smooth balance between the two systems, however, in today’s fast-paced way of living, we find ourselves living with a highly active SNS – stress response state - impacting how we feel and think.

The sympathetic nervous system is dominant in exertion, exercise or arousal and when we are in stressful situations or feel challenged.

It is often referred to as the ‘stress’ response system that kicks in and prepares us for action. When stress is great our sympathetic system automatically goes into a flight or fight response, due to an external threat, or perceived threat, or something we believe will have an unpleasant impact.

 

A perceived threat or stress response will differ from person to person and is based on what you perceive, and your beliefs. Times have evolved, and modern-day living can activate this response in many ways - being late for work, seeing something on social media that annoys you, having a deadline to meet, having an argument or worrying about finances. 

 

If you’ve ever noticed your heart pounding, tense muscles, sweating when stressed, rapid breathing, frustration, poor sleep, irritability, overthinking or procrastination to perform a task, that’s your sympathetic nervous system at work.

 

Now, the sympathetic nervous system isn’t a bad thing. We need it. It’s what helps give us that bit of oomph when we need it to help us meet the challenges of the day and complete tasks we need to. It’s managing the balance of ‘good’ levels of stress v’s overwhelm leading to what is often referred to as ‘toxic’ or chronic stress which produces many physical and mental health conditions.

Freeze response

Based on the Polyvagal Theory by Stephen Porges, we can also shift into what is called freeze mode. This happens when we stay in heightened states of stress for too long and when the sympathetic (SNS) arousal can get so extreme that it is too much for the body to handle. At these times we have a failsafe mechanism that kicks in. The parasympathetic system spikes so strongly that it overwhelms the sympathetic arousal and sends the person into a state of freeze.

 

This can be an impartial freeze, such as an inability to think clearly or access emotions or words, you may feel depressed or dissociation or it can be a full shutdown where you feel 'frozen', unable to move forward.

 

This freeze response is due to the Dorsal part of our parasympathetic vagus nerve response. which we will cover below.

 

What is important to understand is that the two parts of the autonomic nervous system, PNS and SNS, cannot turn on at the same time. If you activate one side, whether it be on purpose or automatically, the other side becomes suppressed.

 

We are designed to shift between the two systems and need both systems working to help us deal with the demands of life, however, the hustle and bustle, and pressures of life mean that our sympathetic nervous system stays highly active, instead of returning to a balanced state, and our parasympathetic system is drastically underactive, especially in people who are living with anxiety, chronic stress or trauma.

The way we breathe impacts and drives our nervous system

Take a look at how this might impact you.

 

If you’re breathing is out of sync, breathing into the chest with short shallow breaths using your mouth, which many of us are these days, the signal that your brain receives is that you detect a threat, you’re uneasy. Your brain will take these messages and prepares your body for ‘flight or fight’ actions. It will release more hormones into the body, such as adrenaline and cortisol, to get you ready to act, your heart rate will increase, your digestion is stalled, your mind will be highly active and your body on alert unable to relax and switch off – all this, and you are at home sitting on the sofa watching TV trying to relax! Have you ever noticed a time when you’re trying to relax but you are fidgety, your mind is active and you just can’t settle, you keep checking your phone, tapping your foot or moving your legs, and you can’t switch off – you are more than likely activating the sympathetic stress state with your breathing. 

That is a simple example of why many of us find it difficult to switch off and fully relax. But, think of the impact this has on our body and mind when we remain in these high states of stress most of the time. Over time we feel the strain and heaviness, and it shows in ways such as

 

  • Difficulty relaxing or calming down

  • Chronic stress and anxiety

  • Over breathing/Dysfunctional breathing

  • Outbursts or inappropriate overreactions

  • Feeling unsafe, or stuck in defensive mode

  • Exhaustion, headaches and muscle tension

  • Sleep problems and digestive issues

 

Remember the parasympathetic system allows us to recharge, relax, restore, digest food and recover. If we are limiting our time in this state, we are not giving our body and mind the time it needs to heal, calm down and restore.

 

Moving away from living in constant SNS states of stress is crucial to your health and overall wellbeing. But how do we get to get more balance and activate more of our PSN?

How we breathe, of course! Becoming aware of, and taking hold of your breathing.

switching off and relaxing

HOW BREATHWORK HELPS

Breathing is the direct link between the conscious mind and the nervous system

Becoming aware and taking hold of your breathing - learning to breathe using your diaphragm, and your nose and include deeper, slower conscious breathing patterns and breathwork techniques in your day means your nervous system can adapt to a more efficient breathing behaviour and stimulate the parasympathetic branch.  

 

With breathwork, you’re not only releasing stress and anxiety, but you’re also training your nervous system to respond differently to stressors in the future. Over time, and with practice, you can rewire your system for more calm and less reactivity.

 

When you start to engage more of your PSN system you will notice less reactivity, as you are calming both the mind and the body. Engaging in breathwork to support regulating your nervous system will be hugely beneficial, however, if you feel you need further psychological support, always consult a medical professional or therapist. 

The Vagus Nerve

The vagus nerve is your new best friend! It plays a huge role in our nervous system regulation and can help us to manage our stress, emotional states and health with breathing.

 

The vagus nerve is a cranial nerve that belongs to the parasympathetic nervous system and is the key driver involved in communication between your Autonomic Nervous System and your breath.

 

It is the biggest nerve network in the body that starts at the brain stem and wanders through the body and interweaves itself into most major systems, including the head, heart, lungs, gut and diaphragm. 

 

When the vagus nerve is running the show, that’s when we feel grounded, present, engaged, and level-headed. We can face stress with a clear mind and recover quickly from stressful events. We are flexible, open-minded, and curious when our vagus nerve is active.

 

Stress will always be a way of life, but if we can manage the stress while staying present in this way, we improve what is called our vagal tone and we build a higher capacity for stress, change, and challenge and a higher capacity for rest, recharge, and recovery.

 

However, the vagus nerve can be deactivated if our breathing becomes faster, for example, it allows our sympathetic nervous system and fight or flight response to take over. If we are living from our SNS system we often have a low vagal tone and less tolerance for stress, change, and challenge while making it more difficult to rest, recharge, and recover.

Communication between the body and the brain

Most of the pathways of our Parasympathetic Nervous System also travel through this vagus nerve and what is most fascinating is the communication it provides between the body and brain.

 

  • 20% of messages come down from the brain to the body (top-down approach)

  • But, an incredible 80% of messages go up from the body up to the brain (bottom-up approach)

So, your brain responds to the response of your body. SNS = stress, PSN = calm, relax and joy.

 

As we say, the brain listens to every breath you take, so make every breath count!

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the vagus nerve

HOW BREATHWORK HELPS

Changing the pattern of breathing

Studies have shown that when we change the pattern of our breathing, we change the information being sent to our brain from our body, resulting in changing our state.

 

When the vagus nerve is stimulated through diaphragmatic breathing it induces the 'rest and digest' parasympathetic state. This means that it helps restore calm, reduce stress, anxiety, and anger and allows access to problem-solving, creativity, and other higher brain functions.

 

The vagus nerve can also be stimulated by tones and vibration when breathing, and massaging your ear lobes!

 

Incorporating a daily practice, and building good breathing behaviours will help balance and activate more of the PSN.

02

Our brain, thoughts, emotions and behaviours

Your brain is a complex and extremely hard-working organ. It weighs around 3 pounds and only takes up 2% of your body weight, however, it is made up of around 86 billion neurons (nerve cells) and uses a whopping 20% of the oxygen you breathe. The 86 billion neurons constantly communicate with each other in various ways, and at different frequencies (brain waves).

We all breathe the same, don't we?

No. Every single person has their very own breathing habits and behaviours that are totally unique to them. How? Over time our breathing behaviours are impacted and change in response to life experiences, environments and challenges, meaning most of us develop poor, or ineffective breathing habits over time that start to hinder our health and happiness.

There is synchronicity between the brain and breathing, in fact, there are parts of the brain that are significantly affected by the way we breathe to help us regulate our thoughts and emotions. As we say, the brain is always listening to our breathing. Out of sync breathing can lead to out of sync emotions, thoughts, responses and behaviours.

 

Let’s take a look at the Limbic System and the Prefrontal Cortex.

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Prefrontal Cortex

The Prefrontal Cortex is located at the front side of our brain and is responsible for carrying out various vital functions in daily life. These functions include executive functions, storing and retrieving memory, maintaining attention and focus, self-reflection, and smooth regulation of emotions. You could say it’s the brain’s rational part and plays a role in making decisions based on good judgment whilst also helps to think about the long-term consequences of actions.

The Limbic System

The limbic system is a very powerful region of the brain. It is a network of the brain, and a set of structures, located deep inside the brain, that deals with our memories, threat detection, fear conditioning, and the expression of emotions.

The Limbic System - functions and structures
Some Limbic System functions include:
  • Controlling emotions like anger and fear

  • Regulating eating, hunger and thirst

  • Responding to pain and pleasure

  • Sensing sexual satisfaction

  • Controlling aggressive or violent behaviour

  • Responding to sensory information, especially sense of smell

 

The limbic system also has direct control of your automatic nervous system and these key functions:

 

  • Heart rate

  • Blood pressure

  • Breathing

  • Memory

  • Stress levels

  • Hormone balance

  • Moods

The limbic system plays a powerful role in creating different emotions and feelings and is known as our “emotional switchboard of the brain.” It takes sensory input from the environment and receives information from many body parts, including the heart, vagus nerve and gut.

 

When left, the limbic system can run on auto-pilot and feelings of uncertainty and anxiety, depression, and unrest can quickly take over. This creates a physical response in the body and activates our stress response system putting us in that “freeze, fight or flight” mode and impairing our ability to see our reality in a positive light, it also forces us to live in the past, or worry about unknown future events, instead of being in the present.

The Prefrontal Cortex

Now, this is where the Prefrontal Cortex comes in as it can take the responses from the amygdala and regulate rational thought and put things into a little more perspective. It processes the response and will often make us think about our actions and behaviour to respond in an appropriate way.

 

However, this is not always the case and we can often experience what is called an Amygdala Hijack. Have you ever acted on impulse from an emotion that was triggered in you, you may have acted out of proportion to the circumstances and later thought – what happened, why did I do that?

 

An amygdala hijack occurs when any strong emotion — anger, fear, anxiety, or even extreme excitement — impairs the prefrontal cortex. Signals bypass the more rational brain (PFC) and are sent to the ‘emotional brain’ (limbic system).  Research suggests that when the amygdala is activated, the prefrontal cortex is less activated. In certain situations, this may support us, in a life and death situation for example, however, for everyday living understanding this relationship and being aware of it is key to helping us pause and explore our emotional states and behaviours.

 

We have thousands of thoughts running through our minds each day. Research suggests up to 50,000 per day! Most of these thoughts are often stuck on repeat and can have a notable effect on our behaviour if we do not regulate our system and tap into more of our conscious selves.

 

We spend an incredible 95% of our time in our subconscious, or unconscious conditioned beliefs and thoughts, which means we only tap into our potential and conscious awareness 5% of the time in the day. When unaware, or not consciously exploring this, we react based on emotions from our heightened stress states.

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The habit of spending nearly every waking moment lost in thought leaves us at the mercy of whatever our thoughts are.

Sam Harris

Default Mode Network (DMN)

Now, you may not have heard of the brain default network mode before, but chances are you are very familiar with it. It’s something you experience daily, and what you may sense as the voice in your mind, the mind chatter, or as it’s often referred to, the monkey mind or ego mind.

 

Your DMN, or monkey mind, can be your greatest cheerleader, or it can be your biggest critic, firing out consent inner dialogues, which is often a defeatist voice that rarely quietens down.

It's that voice that says things like:

 

  • It's too hard, don't bother

  • Nobody likes me

  • No one will listen to me, who wants to listen to me!

  • What will people think of me if I do that

  • Why did I say that, I am so stupid!

  • and so on, and so on ...

The DMN is something that researchers have been fascinated with and studied for decades, and with extensive modern-day scientific studies, we have much greater insight and understanding into it than ever before. In particular, how to reverse the effects of the DMN, or even control it.

What exactly is the DMN and why is it always switched on?

Your DMN is a group of brain regions that are important for our survival, and is designed to be most active when we are awake, hence why you hear or sense it for most, if not all, of the day! The regions include our medial prefrontal cortex, posterior cingulate cortex and inferior parietal lobule.

 

Now, what is important to understand is that DMN isn’t designed to make us happy, it is evolutionary in its purpose which is purely survival and to protect us. It does not process the emotional impact caused by its voice and feedback loops, and the DMN sends 'chatter' based on belief data that it feels you need to be protected.
 

It is for that reason the DMN constantly directs us to think about ourselves, it wants to keep remembering the past and imagining the future – often anything but being focused on what’s happening right now, being present and conscious. It builds up a story of what is perceived, sometimes far from the truth of what you desire.

 

Involved in our memory, particularly the autobiographic episodic memories, The DMN plays a role in helping us make a model of the world, or predict the future based on our own experience of past events. This is useful to keep us from harm based on past events, however, a drawback is that it can also prevent us from moving forward in life, keeping us stuck in freeze-and-flight mode with limiting beliefs.

 

Studies show that people spend most of their time thinking of their past or worrying about their future, and feel more unhappy, stressed and anxious if they let their minds wander. So, why aren’t we bringing our focus to the present? Our DMN is more active when we are not focused on what’s happening around us, or daydreaming.

 

Engaging in breathwork practices and learning how to communicate and work with your DMN can help steer you away from obsessive thought behaviours, stress, anxiety, and feelings of mental exhaustion.

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default mode network

HOW BREATHWORK HELPS

Reprogramme the Default Mode Network

Engaging in practices such as breathing, mindfulness, hypnotherapy and meditation to name a few are shown to help manage, and even reprogramme the DMN.

 

Breathwork is a powerful tool to use when it comes to the DMN, in particular circular deep breathing patterns. It allows that part of the brain to tune out or dial down, helping to quiet the default mode network, and your monkey mind and allowing you to connect with your more conscious, true self.

 

When our ego mind is in a calm state or turned down, it allows us to move away from habitual thinking patterns and you can explore the true direction of your life, discover peace and stillness, and even release stored emotions from the body that may have been suppressed and stored deep for years. This can be a wonderful, liberating and life-changing experience.

If you live with an overactive ego-mind, negative thought patterns, debilitating limiting beliefs, anxiety or any other condition where you feel stuck, or frustrated in the present day, then a deeper conscious connected breathwork session would benefit you greatly.

Dopamine and the Feedback Loop

Dopamine is a chemical in the brain that motivates reward-seeking behaviour by triggering feelings of pleasure and enjoyment. We are driven by dopamine; it is what motivates us – in particular when accomplishing goals and eliminating uncertainty. It can drive us to head off and discover and explore, or solve problems and eliminate the uncertainty. Dopamine is released when your brain is expecting a reward and can turn into a cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement, as in we constantly repeat the cycle – because it can make us feel great at the time.

 

You may relate to this when engaged in successful social interactions, eating nice food, smashing your workout in the gym, or when you have interaction on social media posts, those thumbs up and hearts you desire, or you scroll away losing track of time buzzing from what you view, or seeking the next best thing. Dopamine can give us that sense of ‘high’ when we have achieved something or experienced something that makes us feel good.

 

On the other hand, dopamine can also keep us unsettled and up at night as it may drive us to analyse problems, feel the need to check in on the news or social media, check to see how many likes we have or who has posted what, or force us to get up and triple check we locked the back door, anything that can answer or deal with uncertainty – we are driven to clear uncertainty remember.

 

At these stages, the brain continually drips in more dopamine into your system, and the loop continues. Although it is often referred to as the ‘pleasure chemical’ it can drive us to want to continually seek this out, but it doesn’t always bring reward or relief. It can bring burden, anxiety and rumination, it has been recorded that dopamine can also lead to addictive behaviour.

 

We wanted to highlight the dopamine feedback loop as it’s about maintaining a fine balance and understanding what might be happening to you. Many people are unaware as to why they keep getting pulled to their phones and social media or news apps, or continue to seek out, whereas others wonder why they analyse or live with rumination.

 

Again, dopamine brings so many benefits and offers us those amazing feelings of achievement and pleasure, and also work towards those goals. You may, however, be experiencing a loop that you feel is unhelpful and not serving you anymore.

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feedback loop

HOW BREATHWORK HELPS

Calm yourself

Breathing to calm and stimulate our vagus nerve to bring us back to a more settled place will help us manage, and even start to break negative feedback loops we experience.

 

Becoming more mindful of these actions and behaviours, and perhaps putting some set guidelines in place, will also support shifting away from any loops that may be causing us anxiety or unease.

SECTION RECAP

Hoorah! Well done for completing section 2. We hope you found it useful, and interesting.

So, as you can see, the brain and body are truly amazing but extremely complex, but once we start to understand that 1. our brain is based on old data, conditioning from external environments, trying to cope with a highly stimulated modern-day, and 2. It has one goal/job - to keep us safe and functioning. It's about understanding, exploring and finding a way to manage and communicate with cues, signals and messages we receive. To reconnect and embrace, rather than push and pull. 

 

Breathing bridges the gap here and ultimately gives you the controls to manoeuvre and manage your state, emotions, thoughts and responses. 

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SECTION 3

In section 3 learn more about how breathing affects the body.

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